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McSweeney’s, Kirkus and the barely literate digital future

December 11, 2009

Trying to make sense of Kirkus’ closing in light of the enthusiastic demand for McSweeney’s newspaper project, the San Francisco Panorama, I find a barely literate blog post declaring the stupidity of the book and newspaper industries. Suddenly I wonder if the information highway isn’t hurtling us toward a vacant lot.

“The internet and technology is transforming just about every industry there is,” begins the post by Steven Hodson at “Some at more breakneck speed than others but the change is coming. Changing as well is the consumer’s buying habits as more of our goods are obtainable as never-ending digital goods and for an almost zero distribution cost.”

Hodson goes on in that ungrammatical vein for several more paragraphs. The post is headlined “Book industry joins the news business on the stupid train,” illustrated by a small school bus, the kind assumed in pop culture to transport special needs students. Get it?

What makes this post so dispiriting, though, is not how very poorly it’s written, or the mixed metaphors of its presentation. No, it’s the likelihood Hodson is right in what I will charitably call his “argument.” Traditional media companies are fighting “against an inevitable future” in which technology renders them obsolete.

Meanwhile, McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ admirable journal, has spent nine months putting together an old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper, the San Francisco Panorama, which went on sale Tuesday and almost immediately sold out, according to Publishers Weekly –despite its hefty $16 price in bookstores.

“The newspaper feels and looks like what the Sunday New York Times used to—complete with its own magazine and stand alone book section,” reports PW. Its 300 pages includes sports, local news, editorials.

“We can’t remember any group of people being as excited about a publication as those for Panorama,” said Stacey Lewis of City Lights bookstore.

I’d like to think the Panorama‘s popularity in San Francisco provides evidence of pent-up demand for real newspapers. But I’m not that stupid. A one-time publication, it is instead an exercise in nostalgia, a last glimpse of what is being lost. Newspapers used to do this every day, remember, using typewriters, glue pots, X-acto knives and lead type.

McSweeney’s publisher, Oscar Villalon, understands the appeal of the Panorama. “While some have credited McSweeney’s with recreating the newspaper,” PW observes, “Villalone said Panorama served more as a reminder of what newspapers were like in the past.”

Goodbye to all that. The internet genie is out of the bottle, I know. There’s no going back. Traditional book and newspaper industries are doomed, a cheering thought to many. But let’s take a moment to ponder the baby that’s going out with the bathwater: professionalism, quality control, expertise, institutional memory, journalistic and literary standards.

I know, too, that many good and smart people are working very hard to make the Internet a viable vehicle for intelligent discourse. McSweeney’s is one high-profile example. Many smaller sites struggle to carry the torch. One example is The Palm Beach ArtsPaper, an online start-up cultural journal founded by recently laid-off print journalists.

I hope they all find ways to make the economics of the web pay, because journalism and book publishing are both labor-intensive operations that in essence create hand-made products. It’s expensive to put out a newspaper, or find and publish worthwhile books.

If not, then “writers” like Hodson are destined to become the norm, and all of the news and opinion we consume will read like this: “The publishers are facing a future of electronic distribution that is beyond their control as e-reader, and more typical devices like smartphones and computers, gain market momentum as principal ways to read our books.”

Shoot me now. In response to my initial post yesterday on the demise of Kirkus, I received a thoughtful response from Robert Woerheide, who struck an optimistic note on the future of publishing: “With readers and writers at its heart–rather than bean-counting execs–I believe the future of literature can still be bright.”

Let’s all pray Mr. Woerheide is right. What do you think? Is there hope for journalism and literary culture?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2009 2:37 pm

    Curl up with your Kindle? And all your e-devices? No one really wants a future full of tech gadgets that have planned obsolescence built into them do they? Newspapers are going under in record numbers and so are book publishers. A fact of our times that cannot be denied, unfortunately. But there are also record numbers of independent publishers picking up some of the slack. There are journals like Perigee, Web del Sol, Escene, Pif, dozens and dozens – all dedicated to keeping the Word alive. Bibliophiles won’t let the e-world rule everything. Long live the stupid train. I’m glad to be on it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 11, 2009 2:42 pm

      I wrote this blog hoping to be proved wrong. It’s good to hear optimism and encouragement from an old warrior like your, Duff.

  2. DeeBishoff permalink
    December 11, 2009 2:41 pm

    I agree with Robert, as long as there are people (and there are many) who love reading, there is much hope for journalism and literary culture.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 11, 2009 2:43 pm

      Dee, thanks for the positive note. If there are enough smart pleasure readers like you, then there may be hope, after all.

  3. December 11, 2009 2:47 pm

    OK Chauncey, I’ll bite. I hated the news about E&P and Kirkus, I hate seeing what’s happening to the newspaper and book publishing industries, but yes, I do think there’s hope for journalism and literary publication. Even on the web. When I read rants like this I think of Adam Gopnik’s review of two new Samuel Johnson biographies in The New Yorker. Gopnik writes:

    Samuel Johnson arrived in London in March of 1737, at the age of twenty-seven. He was escaping from a failed effort to run a country school, along with his prize pupil, a twenty-year-old would-be actor named David Garrick. Although Garrick made his way to the stage, and to stardom, in short order, Johnson had no luck in his dream, of becoming a London writer and wit, for a very long time. He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence. Johnson worked as a miscellaneous journalist, carrying his clips around and begging for assignments. In his first years, he wrote translations from the French and from the classics, brief popular lives of military men, and pamphlets mocking the government. Then he found work as an all-purpose rewrite man at the Gentleman’s Magazine. He always remembered how grateful he was to find an inn where he could get a decent meal for half a shilling. (The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.)

    So yeah, we’re in the middle of what feels like an earthquake, media wise, and that’s scary as hell. But something will emerge — people need to express themselves in literary ways and they need to find out what’s going on. It’s already happening on the web anyway. There IS a lot of badly written material out there on the web, just like there always has been in print. But there is also a huge array of smart, interesting stuff I know I would never have come across in olden days. So I figure we have a choice: We can sit around being pissed off that the old ways are on their way out. That may be satisfying for awhile but who wants to be angry all the time? Or we can look around and try to find the good stuff that’s emerging, in print and online. Take, for example, the Key West Literary Seminar. A lot of the talks there are magical experience for the few hundred people who are wealthy and/or fortunate enough to be there. Until recently, everyone else was out of luck. Now many of those talks are available online as audio podcasts — readers, teachers, students, anyone can hear them, any time, for free. And the musings and readings of writers, some of whom are no longer with us, are preserved forever or at least for a good while longer. Isn’t that kind of cool?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 13, 2009 3:01 pm

      I saw Gopnik’s review of the Samuel Johnson bios, too, and the import of his description of Johnson’s early life, trying to make a living in what we would now call “a changing media environment,” was not lost on me. Indeed, it gives me some hope. But it does not lessen my sadness at the astonishing decline of newspapers, or the loss of venerable and useful publications such as Kirkus or E&P, or Gourmet, for that matter. Besides, I hate reading anything of substance on a screen, but that’s a personal thing, I guess. What would your average blog respondent say? Oh, I know: “Get over it.”

  4. rachel permalink
    December 11, 2009 3:02 pm

    I’m so glad that other people have hope. I’m going to latch onto theirs. Because left on my own I find myself sitting around without any. I am very pessimistic. But I am going to choose to be optimistic. Because what else can I do? I’m in my mid twenties. I love reading and I don’t know where I would be or how I would exist without books as we know them today. (I can however, see myself existing without the internet). So I guess I am kind of forced to have hope. People still read, don’t they? More than one book a year. Although I am kind of shocked at how foreign my reading seems to my coworkers.

    I think you are right, Mr Mabe, about how the McSweeney’s newspaper is just a taste of something gone past. It is about nostalgia not people wanting to buy newspapers everyday. It’s like old fashioned gum, it’s fun. A novelty.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 13, 2009 3:06 pm

      I’m pessimistic, too, Rachel, but maybe that’s more my nature than a true understanding of the evolving media landscape. I choose hope, too. As you say, what else can we do? When I wrote “Shoot me now” in my blog post, that was a rhetorical device, not a sincere request. Just kidding. Please, I don’t actually want any of you to show up at my door with a Smith & Wesson. And if I’m not going to kill myself, then I must choose, find or cultivate hope, no matter how little reason for it can be found at this moment

  5. December 11, 2009 3:52 pm

    Chauncey, I have little hope for book publishing, especially novels. Bookstores right now are struggling. Over the last 10 years the number of chain stores in the US have been cut in half, and we have gone from 5900 independents to 1200, and e-readers are eventually going to kill bookstores off completely–whether this happens in 3 years or 10, who know, but the writing is on the wall. At some point enough bookstore customers (10%? 20%?) are going to be siphoned off by e-readers to make brick & mortar stores unprofitable, and as more bookstores close, this will trigger a chain reaction of publishers who depend on these bookstores closing, and more readers being forced to e-readers. The ebook stores of the future will be dismal with 100s of thousands of self-published books filling their web pages, and the most visible web pages resembling today’s Walmarts. The legitimate small press and self-published will be indistinguishable on these pages, and readers will be left with no choice but to focus solely the blockbusters and the celebrity books. It will be bleak. But just as vinyl records are now making a comeback after being all but dead for 15 years, maybe the same will eventually be true for the printed book as disgusted readers will be looking for more than the mediocre crud that this future ebook only world will be offering.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 13, 2009 3:10 pm

      Wow, Dave, you’re as gloomy about all this as I am. I agree that e-readers doom bookstores, which is why (I just had this idea), those of us who care about books and reading should mount a movement against the damned thing. Let’s all take a pledge to never buy a Kindle, a Nook, a Sony Reader or any similar device. Let’s harass people we see using them, the way anti-tobacco fanatics accost smokers. Let’s take a stand, right now. Because the end of bookstores will be, as I’ve said before, a cultural catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Oh, and libraries will go, too.

  6. December 11, 2009 5:49 pm

    Chauncey, this is what Dave Memmott (owner of Wordcraft of Oregon) wrote me after reading your Blog today:

    In the book publishing side of things, there are advantages and disadvantages to the new technology. Advantages are that many small presses may be able to extend their publishing of work that would otherwise be left in a drawer somewhere because following NY’s model would break you and following their definition of what is commercial (which they often confuse with “professional”) will diminish the real range of talent and experimentation.

    The demise of Kirkus is appalling particularly in light of the number of places now wanting editors to “pay for” reviews. This, I find, deplorable–as it can’t possibly be a review, only a paid advertisement. USA Reviews (which I think is connected with Hopewell) is an example, as is the new “for hire” reviews from ForeWord Magazine. But can you imagine paying someone to trash your book if they don’t like it? I can’t. So we’re just going to get a load of dishonest reviews that are not reviews but marketing/advertising.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 13, 2009 3:15 pm

      I’ve long said that once the Internet brings about the extinction of newspapers, magazines and book publishers, the only information available on the web will be proprietary. That is, someone will be paying for its production, which means every bit of it will be advertising, “advertorial” or propaganda. With the loss of an independent press (however flawed), no barrier will exist to the depredations of government and big business. Democracy will cease to function. What you describe, the trend toward “pay for” reviews, is an early manifestation of this implacable trend. Oh, God. I hope I’m wrong.

  7. Alexis permalink
    December 13, 2009 12:57 pm

    If you build it, they will come.

    But people have to care enough to create a new forum for journalism and literary culture. Before it was easy because the infrastructure was already there. Now it has to be created from scratch. But I think people are too creative to completely lose this literary culture. So, I am going to choose to be optimistic too.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight, Lit Warrior Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 13, 2009 3:18 pm

      Alexis, thanks for the clearest and firmest voice of hope I’ve seen in this entire discussion. You seem like a natural optimist, just as I am a natural pessimist. We need both — the pessimists to warn of impending calamities, the optimists to guide us around them and into a future that, you know, doesn’t completely suck. We need Cassandra and Aeneas.

  8. December 14, 2009 3:01 am

    Am I the only one who noticed that Hodson’s website is misspelled?

    This quote from your blog – “writers” like Hodson are destined to become the norm – deserves a spot in Robert Olen Butler’s latest novel.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2009 12:24 pm

      Inquistor misspelled? Imagine that. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no copy editing in blog spots. Long live the digital age.

      • December 14, 2009 1:47 pm

        I fear that my comment may have been misconstrued as a shot at you Chauncey. I was not referencing forgivable misspellings on your blog. Instead I was trying to point out that Hodson’s site is a spelled incorrectly. From domain name to the title banner inquisitor is missing an “o”. Made me giggle.

  9. December 16, 2009 3:00 pm

    As Jonathan Lethem told me when I asked him this same question, “People still use fax machines.”

    It is the very obsolescence of books that will save them. Consumers are fetishistic. We buy sixty pairs of shoes when two will do. We collect thousands of stamps with no intention of ever re-selling them for profit. (I’m reminded of Gatsby’s library when a guest marvels that he’s actually cut all the pages – books have always been a status symbol.)

    Will the fast majority of text be read digitally? Yes, and that’s, in many ways, a good thing. (Think about how the aftermath of Katrina could have been different had most people been connected via smart phones. We’re not that far from that reality.)

    Book culture will be smaller, yes, but literature in a broader sense will be expanded. RSS feeds will connect the two in meaningful ways. (I’m thinking now of the journal n+1, who still publishes a print object every so often but also updates their web content with essays and reviews on a weekly basis. Getting hooked on one means getting hooked on the other.)

    Places like Barnes & Noble will probably die, yes. (Boo hoo.) But smart independent purveyors like Mitchell Kaplan, who can create a curated selection in an intelligent environment while also bringing in authors for live readings, will survive. Why? Because they create community, and community is a necessity, not a want.

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